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In Review: The Handel and Haydn Society’s All-Haydn Program

by Dominic Green

Posted: Jan 28, 2015 05:23 PM


Harry Christophers on Sunday night, photo credit James Doyle

This year is the bicentennial of America's oldest living arts ensemble, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston. One of the Society's founders, Gottfried Graupner, had played oboe in the orchestra that premiered Haydn's first set of London symphonies. The Society was founded on March 24, 1815, a few days after Napoleon, tiring of exile on Elba, had returned to Paris. The next morning, the other European powers promised to field 150,000 soldiers against France. Since then, the "H. and H." has avoided several Waterloos both fiscal and critical, as well as giving the American premieres of Handel's Messiah, Haydn's Creation, Verdi's Requiem and Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Under Christopher Hogwood, director from 1986 to 2001, the Handel and Haydn became America's premier period instrument orchestra and chorus.

Since 2009, the H. & H. has been directed by another English period specialist, Harry Christophers, CBE. As the historically informed will know, the letters after Christophers' name mean that he is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an institution that did not survive the passage from 1815 to the present. Meanwhile, the Handel & Haydn, like Gibbon's Rome under the Antonines, is 'guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour,' as well as a loyal home crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall. The bicentennial season includes new works by Arvo Pärt, James Macmillan, and Gabriela Lena Frank. Her musical setting of Emerson's Boston Hymn will not, alas, involve as large a chorus as the 17,000 who hammered out Verdi's "Anvil Chorus" at the 1872 World Peace Jubilee, a proto-Woodstock at which the younger Strauss led his waltzes with the help of over a hundred conductors. But the rest of this season, fittingly, concentrates on works of ancient renown. Last Sunday, it was Haydn's turn.

The orchestra's Concertmaster, Canadian violinist Aislinn Nosky, has been known to perform in a blue jacket modeled on those worn by Haydn's musicians at the Esterházy court. Combined with her spiked red hair, this homage to period style gives her a piratical aspect that complements her fiercely individual playing. On Sunday afternoon, she went for a black frock coat like a vicar moonlighting as a highwayman. Her playing, though, is no joke. She is a musician of tremendous skill, with a warm, often witty tone. As she showed in the Adagio-Allegro that opened the first piece, Haydn's 7th Symphony "Le Midi," her sharp intelligence can animate the most formulaic and rapid of passages. After performing a solo with Assistant Concertmaster Susanna Ogata amid that opening blast, there came a doomy, Baroque-tinged Recitativo, in which she soloed with Guy Fishman's eloquent cello. Christophers controlled the cadenzas with tragic rubato. In the Trio, he cued a twang of sighs from the double basses. In the Finale, his dynamics compensated for the longeurs of the restatement.

Next, Nosky led another work from the early 1760s. Haydn wrote the Violin Concerto in C soon after arriving at the Esterházy court; its first performer was Alois Luigi Tomasini, who had studied in Vienna with Leopold Mozart. Despite tuning trouble, Nosky’s solo took command of the First Movement from its first double stops, and set an agile, cerebral tone, with a cleverly underplayed lightness. The Adagio that followed was also lively yet spare. The strings pulsed steadily, but their bowed sixteenth-notes and plucked eighth-notes left plenty of space for Nosky's austere high notes. The Finale was suitably jaunty, a fleet and light-footed Presto.

After the interval, Christophers returned to lead a third early piece, the Overture from The Apothecary (1768), the first work performed in the opera house at Prince Nikolaus' new palace, Esterháza. The opera has only four characters, a young woman called Grilletta and her three suitors. One is her guardian, the apothecary, who wants her money. She loves one of the other two. A tumbling Presto promises the frenzy of plotting and protestations to come. Grilletta is introduced by a lyrical flute interlude with alternating bouts of high-stepping comedy, and then the opening malarkey returns with even greater vigor.

After three early pieces, the concert finished with Symphony No. 83, the second of the six symphonies commissioned in 1784 by the Comte d'Orgny. Haydn's reputation had reached Paris, and his Classical architecture was gaining in scope and complexity. In the first movement (Presto), dashing sequences of full orchestra alternate with a pianissimo first theme, and the clucking second theme that won the symphony its nickname, "La Poule." The conductor emphasized these contrasts with juddering halts and powerful, striding strings. There was nothing poultry-like about his forcefully clucking oboes, or his energetic dispatch of the formal passages that Charles Rosen (thinking of cushions, not chickens) called "stuffing."

This dialogue of disruption and recovery deepened in the second movement (Andante). The orchestra devolved into sections, and Christophers coaxed evanescent and elegant secondary alignments from Haydn's spaces, each new combination articulating its own restrained power. The Minuet of the third movement was muscular and ebullient against the pastoral protests of the woodwind, and led to a graceful flute-and-strings Trio. The conductor took the sharp corners of the final movement at high speed, the wind instruments buffeted by stormy strings.

The bicentennial season resumes in February with Mozart and Beethoven—who was asked to write a piece for the H. & H., but seems not have gotten around to it.  

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The real thing

by James Bowman

Posted: Jan 27, 2015 12:08 AM


 

One thing you may have noticed, as I did, about the media’s coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union Address last week, is how often the President’s grip on reality was called into question. This is nothing new coming from Republicans like Karl Rove, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the speech “was disconnected from economic reality.” Likewise, Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary noticed that the speech had "a tone that was [...] divorced from the reality of Obama’s six years in office.” But even the massively pro-Obama media may be beginning to think this or similar views of the matter worth reporting if not wholeheartedly endorsing. Thus Peter Baker in The New York Times wrote that the President “made no reference at all to the midterm elections, offered no concessions about his own leadership and proposed no compromises to accommodate the political reality.”

Nor was it just political or economic reality that the President was seen as avoiding. Contrasting President Obama’s State of the Union with Bill Clinton’s in 1998, just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Amanda Foreman of the London Sunday Times noted that though both speeches were in her words “presidential theatre,” Mr. Clinton’s was different in that it “felt real. By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union last week just felt surreal.”

To say that someone has lost touch with reality used to be a common way to question his sanity, but an editorialist for The Wall Street Journal avoided that rhetorical trap by effecting a neat inversion. The President wasn’t insane, as this writer saw it. Instead, he was causing Republicans to doubt their own sanity, rather as Charles Boyer does to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 movie Gaslight. “The only plausible rationale” for the President’s proposals, avers the Journal, “is that he thinks he can gain politically by driving Republicans nuts.” Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he’s nuts.  “Imagine,” continued the editorialist, “if George W. Bush had proposed a $320 billion tax-rate cut in his 2007 State of the Union, following his rout in the 2006 midterm. He would have been hooted out of the chamber, followed by days of wondering if he’d wigged out.” 


Another old-fashioned way of saying that someone was crazy was to say that he had “lost his reason.” I think that there is a case to be made that the now common practice of claiming reality for ourselves and denying it to our opponents suggests that the political culture in this country has lost its reason. It’s part of a larger flight from rationality brought on by a desire to short-circuit debate. It is much easier to avoid the views of those who disagree with us than to rebut them, and the simplest way to avoid them is to dismiss them out of hand as having nothing of interest or importance to say for one or more of three reasons: (1) they are not held in good faith but only as a cover for getting or keeping some selfish advantage; (2) they are stupid and therefore impermeable to reason and evidence or (3) they are insane.


Paul Krugman, for example, routinely concentrates on (1) and (2), as in this example from a New York Times column last week. “On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience.” But with characteristic hyperbole, he also edges towards (3), since holding views “completely at odds with. . . actual experience,” is one definition of insanity. Presumably some pitiable vestige of forensic good manners holds him back from coming right out and saying it. No such trace of civility restrains one Jason Wilson — who, I infer, is Australian — writing in The Guardian, who describes with some accuracy the views of those who see danger from the advance of what they call “cultural Marxism” and then abruptly adds that “the whole story is transparently barmy.”


Transparently, that is, because it transparently saves Mr. Wilson the trouble of making any actual demonstration of its barminess. We the barmy, for whom the progress of “cultural Marxism” seems equally transparent may also suspect that we are being gaslighted, but that’s the beauty of paranoia: it’s always self-reinforcing. If someone calls you crazy when you know you’re not, it becomes a sure sign that they’re crazy. But then we have to take account of that well-known catch-22 that those who are crazy never know they’re crazy, while anyone who thinks he is probably isn’t. I myself tend to believe that, even if someone is crazy — or has simply lost touch with reality — it is better to avoid the accusation, since its only purpose is to put an end to debate. Of course, that’s what those who make it very often seem to want.

 

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Critic's Notebook for January 26, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jan 26, 2015 09:20 PM


 

Stained glass from the Davis Mausoleum (detail), Woodlawn Cemetary

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Architecture, Iolanta, and beautiful burial grounds.

Fiction: Happy Are the Happy, by Yasmina Reza, John Cullen, trans. (Other Press): Playwright and author Reza’s newest book is a fragmented novella made up of twenty vignettes, each of which functions as an independent short story. Through the overlapping tales, Reza follows more than a dozen characters struggling with marriage and loneliness. The vignettes range from fantastical to humorous to dark, combining to build a complex and multifaceted world. CE

Nonfiction: Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History, by Bernard Bailyn (Deckle Edge): This collection of essays by the Emeritus professor of History at Harvard and two-time Pulitzer prize winner expounds on the ways historians manage to understand time periods vastly different from their own. Bailyn argues that historians, who must often work with fragmentary sources, should develop “empathic imaginations” and push aside their own personal standards and biases, in order to understand a place in it’s own context and to eventually explain the events that transpired there. The essays collected here range from Bailyn’s earlier work in 1954 to his latest writings in 2007 and are easily accessible to both the professional and amateur historian.  –RH

Poetry: One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, by Paul Muldoon (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux): The twelfth collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet continues to demonstrate his intricate, obsessively formalist style. Many of the poems are built around the past and long-held memories, including references to Muldoon’s own earlier work. —CE

Art: The Woodlawn Cemetery: Classical landscape isn't the first image that comes to mind when you consider the Bronx. Yet with Wave Hill, the New York Botanical Garden, and Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx in many ways is the most scenic borough of New York. Perhaps the most tranquil place of all, and certainly the most under-appreciated, is Woodlawn Cemetery. Woodlawn was the necropolis for New York's Gilded Age. The best architects, sculptors, and glassmakers of the period designed lavish family mausoleums here ranging through every historical style, from Egyptian through the Baroque. In the snow, these buildings seem particularly sublime. Now a National Historic Landmark, and still an active burial ground, Woodlawn is free and open daily, easily accessible by both subway and commuter train, and ideal by car. Paper maps are available at the gatehouse, and there's a mobile app with on site information for all the great monuments.  —JP

Music: Iolanta & Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera (Monday, January 26-Saturday, February 21): Opening this week is the Metropolitan Opera's new double-bill of Iolanta and Duke Bluebeard's Castle. A peculiar pairing of two very different scores, the co-production with Warsaw's Teatr Wielki will mark the first-ever Met performances of Tchaikovsky's one-act Iolanta, a romanticized portrayal of the courtship of Yolande, younger sister to Margaret of Anjou. Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala lead the first cast, while Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko bring Bartók's Bluebeard to life. Valery Gergiev conducts. —ECS

Other: “Hidden Order and Disorder: A Discussion of Opposites and Contrasts” at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (Thursday, January 29): The ICAA, in partnership with the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, will present a lecture discussing Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors’ work while highlighting some of their favorite projects and the process of their design. Founders Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer will focus on the careful use of axis, centerlines, procession, and arrangement with the layers of conflict, contrast, and disorder in the final touches, illustrating how these conflicting forces can lead to spaces that are both at rest and in flux and create environments both comforting and provocative. CE

From the archive: The bitter fool, by David Yezzi: Poetry has become sterile, but we can still find realism, humor, and intensity in the satiric impulse.

From our latest issue: An enemy within, by Keith Windschuttle: How to protect speech when the freedom is abused.

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The concert hall as warzone

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jan 26, 2015 10:47 AM


Vengerov at the Philharmonic, via NYT

Frankly, I wasn’t sure I would ever hear Maxim Vengerov play again. I was afraid the great Russian violinist was through. I knew he had suffered some injury, and I also heard rumors about a loss of interest in the violin. Or a loss of heart. Or something. Moreover, he had turned to conducting. That wasn’t rumor but fact.

The loss of Maxim Vengerov to the violin world would be … I don’t know, something like the loss of Tiger Woods to the golf world (which has just about happened).

But there he was on Thursday night, onstage with the New York Philharmonic, violin in hand. He was going to play an awfully hard piece, too: the Tchaikovsky Concerto. On the podium was a Chinese conductor, Long Yu. Or should I say “Yu Long”? (His family name is Yu.)

As the orchestra played the opening section, there was a startling error: a premature entrance. Unless my eyes deceived me, Maestro Yu looked up, startled (same as I was in the audience). This is very rare from a top orchestra, and in such a common piece.

When Vengerov started to play, my heart sank. He wasn’t anywhere near himself. He was stiff and halting. His intonation was poor. He and the orchestra were woefully out of coordination, and it was the violinist’s fault. No one could have kept up with his weirdness.

At one point, there was a train wreck in the orchestra—not Vengerov’s fault, although he had put weirdness and uncertainty in the air. I thought the orchestra was going to have to stop altogether and resume somewhere. To sit in your seat and witness all this was agonizing.

There were hints of the old Vengerov: the big, fat Russian sound; the fire, the charisma. But it seemed his fingers couldn’t do what his brain and heart wanted to do. They were sausages, they didn’t work.

Between the first and second movements, I said bitterly to the friend next to me, “Put a fork in him. He’s done, done as dinner.” I was sorry he had ever come back, really. I was sorry to be in attendance (for I adore Vengerov so).

The second movement was okay. Vengerov got through it, with a modicum of honor. I was terribly nervous for him. I’ll say it again: It was painful to sit there. And I had no hope for the last movement: It was too hard—too fast, too tricky. Vengerov would just fake and bull his way through it.

As it transpired, the third movement was shocking: Not only did Vengerov get through it, he played it very well. Damn well. I grinned from ear to ear. I was almost giddy with relief. Vengerov was not done. He could still play. The old charisma and electricity were there, and so were the fingers, pretty much.

Sometimes we say, “I feel like I’ve been through a war.” So it was with this Tchaik Concerto. I don’t know about Vengerov, the orchestra, or the conductor, but I was drained.

It looked like there would be an encore, and I said to my friend, “It’ll be a slow movement from a Bach suite, and it won’t be in tune.” Vengerov had a remark for the audience: “There is no Russian music for solo violin, so I will play Bach!” I recalled Vengerov playing an unaccompanied work by Shchedrin in Carnegie Hall.

Anyway, the encore was the Sarabande from the D-minor partita—and it was in tune. It was just slightly careful, almost academic—not really Vengerov—but it was still good, and, again, I was relieved, and gratified.

After intermission, there was a symphony on the program: the Shostakovich Fifth. I thought there was no way Yu could conduct it decently, based on the Tchaikovsky. I would have bet dollars to doughnuts the Shostakovich would stink.

There was my second shock of the night: The Shostakovich was very, very good. It was incisive, bracing, smart—and very idiomatic. Very Soviet. You could smell the fear and the tension almost the whole way through.

And the solo horn playing was exemplary. It was by Richard Deane, and it was absolutely first-rate—a clinic.

I have three complaints, one of them tiny, one of them minor, and one of them more substantial. 1) Maestro Yu’s ending of the second movement was interesting but contrived. 2) He favored fast tempos throughout, and some of those tempos might have crossed the line, a hair, into too fast. 3) The final movement was undifferentiated. It was fast, loud, and unremitting, all the way home. The music would have had greater impact with more variation in dynamics, tempo, and so on.

But still: This was an excellent performance of the Shostakovich Fifth. For the most part, Yu did not interpret it. He just conducted it, the way Shostakovich wrote it. The music chilled, smote, uplifted, and seared. There is so much ambiguity, or ambivalence, in this symphony. Are the last pages triumphant, defiant, what? And that slow movement: Is there anything lovelier or more haunting in all of music?

I look forward to hearing Maestro Yu again. And I would like to close this post with three footnotes.

1) A few years ago, Yu was here in New York, when some thug attacked him on the street. The thug ran off. And Yu chased him down and hit him back. Bravo, maestro. Do it again, if you have to. (For a write-up of the incident, go here.)

2) Some violinists recoil when I say this, but, in my observation, violin playing is a young man’s game. (Maxim Vengerov is now forty, by the way.) Yes, yes, Heifetz and Milstein played well in later years. But rare, I think, is the violinist who plays truly well beyond early middle age. It may have to do with the cramped quarters in which they work. I mean, in which their hands and fingers work. Anyway, this is a contentious subject, and I’ll return to it later (or not).

3) It used to be that I remarked on concerts that were spoiled by hearing aids—wayward, piercing, painful, deafening, maddening hearing aids. Honestly, I’m now tempted to remark on concerts that are not spoiled by such hearing aids. It’s like hearing a dog not barking. I hear a hearing aid not going off, and I am amazed and relieved.

There was a hearing aid on and off at Thursday night’s concert. It was like a laser through your head. Can anything be done about this menace?

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jan 23, 2015 11:29 AM


Nave of Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

 

Recent links of note:

Chile Will Erect Antoni Gaudí’s First Building Outside of Spain
Laura C. Mallonee, Hyperallergic
La Sagrada Familia still isn't finished, but a chapel the Catalan architect designed in 1915 is finally coming to life.

Loss and Gain
James Matthew Wilson, The Weekly Standard
David Yezzi, poet of 'urbane detachment,' is also TNC's poetry editor. His distant gaze falls upon all our lyrical submissions. 

The Definition of a Dictionary
Stefan Fatsis, Slate
“Creating a new Unabridged Dictionary gives us the opportunity to revisit the biggest questions of all […] What is it that ought to be said and shown about the words in the dictionary? What should we talk about when we talk about words? 

Might at the Museum
Bob Colacello, Vanity Fair
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s big, new move into 20th-century art—propelled by Leonard Lauder’s recent $1 billion gift of 81 Cubist masterpieces—is altering the balance of power among New York’s biggest museums.

Beard of Egypt's King Tut hastily glued back on with epoxy
Brian Rohan, Associated Press
This, my friends, is why we need trained conservators. Support your local museums!

 

From our pages:

Eighteenth-century regulation
Andrew Black
Tracing the history of threats to free speech. 

 

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Critic's Notebook for January 19, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jan 19, 2015 06:42 PM


 

 

Devin Powers, Lion (detail), 2013-2014

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Drug conspiracies, despairing authors, and children’s books.

FictionGlow, by Ned Beauman (Knopf): This smart thriller is set in 2010 London, amidst underemployed twenty-somethings in search of love, raves, and drugs, most notably the “glow” of the title—a new, Ecstasy-like designer drug with an epic reputation. Raf, the story’s protagonist, spends his days walking a dog who guards the transmitter of a pirate radio station and his nights at raves. In between, he manages a rare sleep disorder. But when his friend Theo disappears without a trace, Raf finds himself drawn into the heart of a global corporate conspiracy–while falling in love at the same time. CE

Nonfiction: Darius in the Shadow of Alexander, by Pierre Briant, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Harvard University Press): Pierre Briant has written a major work devoted to the last emperor of Persia. Darius’s reputation has been shaped, in large part, from ancient Greek and Roman texts, which, unsurprisingly, do not paint a positive portrait of the enemy of Alexander the Great. Many today see the Persian emperor as a man concerned solely with pleasure and decadence. Briant weighs the validity of these views as he compares the reigns of Darius and Alexander. –RH

Poetry: Michael Spence wins the 2015 New Criterion Poetry Prize: A former naval officer, bus driver, and poet, Michael Spence has written poems that have appeared in a wide range of outlets including the pages of TNC. We are particularly pleased, however, to sponsor the publication of a new book of poems, Umbilical, which will be available in Falll 2015 from St. Augustine’s Press.  —CE

Art: Through the Valley: New Paintings by Devin Powers at Lesley Heller Workspace (through February 1): “Breakthrough” might be an overused word, but at Lesley Heller Workspace on the Lower East Side, the painter Devin Powers has done just that. For his second solo show at the gallery, Powers has taken the sharp facets of his geometric compositions and carved them in wood, creating wild, abstract reliefs that sometimes break right through the picture plane. This unique take on line, color, and crystalline form remains on view through February 1. —JP

Music: Vengerov Performs Tchaikovsky at the New York Philharmonic (Friday, January 22- Sunday, 24): For several years, Maxim Vengerov was widely considered to be among the very top tier of the world's concert violinists, before a shoulder injury brought his career to a sudden halt. ?On Thursday he will make his first New York Philharmonic appearance since recovering from his surgery, playing Tchaikovsky's fiery Violin Concerto, one of the pillars of the instrument's repertoire. Long Yu leads the program, which also includes Shostakovich's masterful Fifth Symphony. —ECS

Other: “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” at the Grolier Club (through February 7): Literature for children is forged from the same enduring elements as literature for adults. At the usually private bibliophiles’ club, early editions of children’s literary classics printed from 1600 to 2000—including editions of Robinson Crusoe, Grimms’ Fairy TalesAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and more—are on view to the public along with more than fifty artifacts. CE

From the archive: A satyr against mankind, by Stefan Beck: On Michael Houellebecq’s commercialized despair.

From our latest issue: Compliance with untruth, by Anthony Daniels: One of the most damaging forms of censorship is self-imposed.

 

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A tenor, lent

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jan 19, 2015 11:52 AM


Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Offenbach's "Les Contes d’Hoffmann"

Over the years, I have used a funny term: “performance-dependent.” Some works of music, I believe, are performance-dependent. They depend on a good performance, for their worth to be brought out. The worth of other pieces comes through, in performances good and bad.

My classic example of a performance-dependent work is Der Rosenkavalier, the Strauss opera. Performed badly, the work can be deathly dull. Performed well, it is sheer magic.

Another performance-dependent work, I believe, is Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the Offenbach opera. In a bad or mediocre performance, it is two and a half hours of French pleasantness, at best. In a really good performance—lo and behold, it’s a masterpiece, or something approaching it.

At the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night, Hoffmann received a good performance. It started out unpromisingly, however. The partying at Luther’s tavern was bland and stiff. The atmosphere was one of forced cheer, rather than real cheer. But, under the baton of Yves Abel, things got better.

Things got a lot better when the tenor opened his mouth to sing. He was Vittorio Grigolo, and he owns one of the most beautiful tenor voices in the world—indeed, one of the most beautiful voices. There are flecks of gold in it. Also a little quiver. Furthermore, the voice is wet. What do I mean by that?

Well, it’s hard to say. One thing I mean is that the voice is the opposite of dry. Eons ago, I described Elisabeth Söderström’s voice as “wet.” It has to be heard and sensed, because words are inadequate. Grigolo’s voice is pulsing with life. It has the properties that add up to a lively beauty.

Hear this voice while you can, ladies and gentlemen. The tenor is in his prime. A voice like his does not last forever—although singers sing long after the voice is gone, or altered.

Grigolo is not just a voice (although that might be enough): He sang the role of Hoffmann in an intelligent, unforced, musical way. He acted with gusto, too. He was satisfying in every respect.

His Nicklausse was the mezzo Kate Lindsey. She has a couple of things working against her. Her voice is on the small side, for a part like this (and a house like the Met). It can be hooded, which is fine. It can also be muffled, which is less fine.

But she sings with accuracy and taste. Her high C was excellent on Friday night, and so was her high B. She’s smart as a whip. Her Nicklausse was interesting, canny, and funny. She is also—may I say this?—so very beautiful to look at.

Thomas Hampson played the villains, all four of them. Some of Offenbach’s notes were too low for him, but he got around vocal obstacles. He called on his considerable operatic wiles for these villains. Dr. Miracle was especially effective. Hampson is tall and thin, so can give off an Ichabod Crane-like villainy. The effect is magnified when he is wearing a top hat. He is long, thin, and crafty.

Erin Morley was Olympia, the mechanical doll. Her intonation was imperfect at the beginning of her aria. But she soon hit her stride (like the opera as a whole on this night). Hers is one of those voices that get better the higher they go. Morley sounded fabulous above the staff. At the end, she emitted a little staccato A flat. It was just a squeak, but it was there.

A Russian soprano, Hibla Gerzmava, was Antonia, and that role starts off with the well-known aria “Elle a fui, la tourterelle.” You know, I think it may be an “ungrateful aria,” as they say: because I have almost never heard it sung well. Gerzmava sang it decently. Her intonation was a little shaky, and she seemed “disconnected”: The vocal apparatus was not firing as it should. But Gerzmava got better—like the opera, and like Morley.

Singing very well from the get-go was Christine Rice, our Giulietta. Just a second ago at the Met, she was Hansel. She was compelling in both roles (a little Grimm boy and a Venetian courtesan). She sings with beauty, security, and style.

I thought I would note the cellist, whose solo playing was a boon to the night. Then I thought I would note the French horn—ditto. (He or she was extraordinarily sure-footed.) Then I thought I would note the clarinet, and the flute, and the bassoon . . . Offenbach calls on many players in the orchestra to step up. And they pretty much all did, superbly.

On nights like this, I wish that soloists in the orchestra could take bows. But bowing at the ends of operas is complicated and time-consuming enough as it is. The orchestra gets the short end of the stick. You see I have not even mentioned the players’ names! You would always name the soprano, wouldn’t you?

As I keep saying, this Hoffmann got better as the night wore on, and Act III and the Epilogue were well-nigh rollicking. The final chorus was like a great, warming, cheering sunrise. And, honestly, Vittorio Grigolo has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard in my life.

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jan 16, 2015 11:20 AM


Claude Monet, Les Peupliers à Giverny, 1887

Recent links of note:

MoMA's Monet Fire Sale
Jerry Saltz, Vulture
"Is it really worth trading a Monet for a slice of Koons's hanging locomotive?" You can probably guess what we think. 

Architecture Continues to Implode: More Insiders Admit the Profession is Failing
Jason Shubow, Forbes
“Don’t clients and architects have a moral obligation to consider the effect on the public? Architecture is not like a painting in a private house or a sculpture in a museum; the public is forced to live with it.

Art for Data's Sake
Leann Davis Alspaugh, The Hedgehog Review
When you go to a museum, are you looking for the full technological experience? No? Well, too bad—you're going to get it anyway.

Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem
Mike Chasar, Poetry Magazine
Whatever happened to recitation?

Heartland Art
James Panero, Philanthropy Magazine
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Dvorak’s stinkeroo

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jan 16, 2015 10:23 AM


Stephen Hough at Carnegie Hall

Here’s a parlor game for you—or rather, a parlor question: What’s the poorest piece of music ever written by a great or near-great composer? And minuets and other ditties don’t count. Let me rephrase the question: What’s the poorest major piece of music ever written by a great or near-great composer?

I have often snoozed or seethed through Mozart’s concerto for flute and harp. But, as (the conductor) Trevor Pinnock once pointed out to me in an interview, “It would be hard not to love that slow movement, wouldn’t it?” Yes, it would.

I used to have a hard time with Ein Heldenleben (the Strauss tone poem). I came to appreciate it more. I have always thought the Mendelssohn piano concertos subpar. There are people who don’t like, or aren’t crazy about, Beethoven’s triple concerto. I think it’s a) underrated and b) a masterpiece, or close to it.

What may take the prize—or booby prize—is Dvorak’s lone piano concerto. Oh, what a dog. Pardon me, but . . . the composer of that fine violin concerto and that phenomenal cello concerto could have composed that piano concerto? It happens.

Stephen Hough, the English pianist, played it in Carnegie Hall last night. He played it with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Harry Bicket. When Hough took the stage, there were whoops in the audience. Quite right: He is that kind of pianist.

He played the dickens out of the Dvorak concerto. He played it as though it were a great piece—which is just the mindset you have to have. He applied the same care or seriousness of purpose that he would apply to, say, the Brahms concerto (either one of them). Also, Hough is very good at taming unwieldy Romantic pieces—witness his recordings of the Saint-Saëns concertos. He imposes a discipline on them.

Throughout the Dvorak, Hough was smart and virtuosic. I have seen Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian pianist, described as “the thinking man’s virtuoso.” His publicists use that line. It would work for Hough as well. I have occasionally accused Hough of brittleness—brittleness of sound at the keyboard. There was none of that last night.

Harry Bicket, I must say, did his part, too. He is known as a Baroque specialist, and I have knocked him over the years for a certain dryness or dearth of spirituality. He tucked into the Dvorak concerto with vigor and conviction. Maybe he is a Romantic? (I have heard him excel in Baroque and Classical music, too.)

Last night’s performers made a strong case for the concerto. But . . . I find it fatally harmed by Lisztian bombast and falderal. Now and then, some Bohemian joviality or felicity pokes through. But not enough. I wonder whether this concerto would ever be played if Dvorak’s name weren’t on it.

Rudolf Firkusny, the superb Czech-born pianist, championed this piece, and all honor to him for doing it. But I suspect that a sense of patriotic or ancestral duty was involved.

I have two footnotes I would like to add to this discussion. After each of the first two movements last night, there was a little applause in the audience. Stephen Hough did not ignore the applause, or glare at the audience. He turned to the audience, smiled politely, and mouthed “Thank you.” That is a gent.

My second footnote is this: At some point in the second movement, I thought, “Hey, that sounds like the ‘New World’ Symphony!” I was almost accusatory. A half a second later, I remembered, “Oh, yeah: same composer.”

The concert began with a very, very good piece: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s was quite weak at the outset. String sound was poor. The strings’ intonation was poor, too. And they supplied no warmth. Relief came in the form of some woodwind solos.

Further relief came when the strings got better. The Idyll as a whole improved. But the key question is, Did it cast a spell? No, it didn’t, not by a long shot. The Idyll was sleepy rather than serene or enchanting.

You couldn’t sleep, though, or at least I couldn’t: because of a faulty and piercing hearing aid a few rows from me. The hearing aid continued to emit that awful sound through the Dvorak concerto (competing with other awful sounds). What is worse in a concert hall than a wayward hearing aid?

I have written about this problem frequently—in this blogpost, for example. I have written about it again for my upcoming “New York Chronicle” in the magazine. At a concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center last weekend, a violist, Paul Neubauer, stopped between movements and said (essentially), “Could you turn that thing off?”

Would that he had been on the beat in Carnegie Hall last night.

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Michael Spence wins the 2015 New Criterion Poetry Prize

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jan 14, 2015 06:16 PM


The New Criterion is pleased to announce that Michael Spence’s Umbilical has been selected as the winner of the 2015 New Criterion Poetry Prize.

 

After earning his B.A. in English from the University of Washington, Michael Spence served four years as a naval officer aboard the USS John F. Kennedy. Soon afterwards, he began his three-decade career as a driver of public-transit buses in the Seattle area. His poems have appeared in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, Tar River Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and The New York Quarterly; he has published four previous collections of poetry: The SpineAdam ChoosesCrush Depth, and The Bus Driver's Threnody. Spence has also been featured in Limbs of the Pine, Peaks of the RangeMany Trails to the Summit; and other anthologies.

Poetry Prize winners receive $3,000 and publication of their manuscript. This year’s judges were the poet and professor Alan Shapiro, TNC Editor and Publisher Roger Kimball, and TNC Executive Editor and poet David Yezzi. Umbilical will be available in Fall of 2015 from St. Augustine’s Press.

We invite our readers to enjoy a selection of Spence’s poems from our archives below.

His Reason (December 2014)

Combined Campaign (March 2013)

Home for the holidays (December 2009)

The “Darter” & the “Dace,” the way I wish he'd told it (April 2008)

Thrown (September 2006)

Umbilical (June 2005)

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